By Andrew Biggs
Congratulations to the little boy on page two of the Bangkok Post last Wednesday, throwing his hands up with joy at being selected to attend Chulalongkorn University Demonstration Elementary School.
Actually, the six-year-old wasn’t “selected” per se. He passed the exam required to enter grade one. He was among only 100 who got in out of more than 2,000 students who sat it.
I wish the kid well … really, I do. He has learned a life lesson about hard work and success. But once father and child are safely out of hearing distance, I do have to shake my head at an early childhood education system that is outmoded and relentless in its pressure.
The school in question is one of the most sought-after government primary schools in all of Thailand. Attached to the prestigious Chulalongkorn University, it does what so many popular government schools must do in order to select the very best students. It makes the students sit an exam.
Only the very top students get in, which perpetuates the exclusivity of these schools. But that is not the burning issue for this Sunday.
The little boy in the photo is not the only one to have learned a life lesson. In another 1,900 households across Bangkok, there are children wallowing in their failure, in their feelings of insecurity and stupidity, recovering from the double-whammy of having to undergo a grueling exam at the age of six – and their subsequent failure. One can only hope they are not being berated by parents for not making them proud, though I suspect a small percentage may just be indulging in that practice, too.
There are positive steps being made in the Education Ministry towards more equality in education, not to mention weeding out those high-ranking officials skimming tens of millions from funds for poor students.
Despite these steps, we are still in a system where we deem it necessary to give five- and six-year-olds exams to get into schools. The probability of securing a seat is minimal owing to sheer numbers. It also perpetuates the myth of the “better schools” which post much higher grades in national tests and competitions. Of course they do — they have the brainiest kids.
I am a popular man when it comes to friends and relatives trying to get their offspring into such schools. I have a bottle of Opus One in my liquor cupboard, still unopened for reasons unbeknown to myself, whose acquisition is the direct result of helping the son of a close Thai friend get accepted into a prestigious school.
No, I didn’t call the principal and ask for special dispensation. That poor child had to undergo an English interview of 5-10 minutes duration before being accepted into the school.
Five to ten minutes! That’s longer than the average English job interview in this country!
My friend called the week before the test. Could I pop over and tutor his child? Perhaps unsurprising to my regular readers, I was very vocal in my displeasure. Not because of the tutoring … as you already know, my friend has a well-stocked wine collection and so I’m assured ample refreshment, along with a drive home via the back streets.
My displeasure was over the fact a six-year-old, fresh out of kindergarten, needed to be stressed out by an English test to get into a school.
The kid himself wasn’t stressed. He was kind of bemused by it all, unlike his parents, who were biting their nails. And you know the result, as evidenced by that solitary Opus One.
While my friend’s son was not stressed, he is in the minority. There are psychological studies that reveal there is nothing like failing a test at an early age to reinforce feelings of insecurity and futility.
I saw this for myself. I once accompanied a niece of mine to her exam to get into Grade One at a popular Bangkok school on the east side. For two weeks prior to the test her mother prepped her, since this was not just a test of Thai. It was also a test of Mathematics and English. Her mother thought that my presence might somehow help in the selection process of getting. My presence made no effect whatsoever, but it was nice to get out of the house that sunny Saturday morning.
There were four classrooms of children. My heart went out to all those gorgeous little kids, clearly perturbed, as they were then herded into the classrooms on the second floor.
About 20 minutes later one child came screaming out onto the balcony. “I can’t do it!” she kept screaming in between sobs.
That poor child. I don’t blame her, and thank god there was just the one. It’s no fun conjugating verbs at the age of six.
Is there a better way to get children into government schools, ensuring equality for all? Yes, there is, but before we examine that, we need to do away with one particular traditional Thai custom.
In Thailand we don’t just get into good schools via our intelligence. With all the corruption news of late, it may not surprise my readers to know there is a dark side to getting into good schools, and that is via shady donations under the table.
Last year this came to light when a disgruntled parent filmed officials at the popular Samsen Wittayalai School demanding a donation. The methods for such payments can be found throughout the continuum from “latent” to “blatant”. At the school where my niece applied, for example, the very last question on the application form asked: “How much would you be prepared to donate to the school if your child was accepted?”
It is interesting to note that in the Thai academic world, much as been said about the Finland model of education.
As stated previously in this column, Finland is perceived to have the best education system in the world. Every week, a Thai Airways flight takes off for Helsinki, catapulting yet another delegation of Thai academics into the small European country on fact-finding missions. The idea is to learn from the best and apply it to here.
And it’s true. Their education system yields the best results and is often spoken about in education conferences here. But this is the irony; Finland is an education system that is fast doing away with examinations. They are not into competition; rather they are into identifying the lower-performing students and closing the gap between them and the high-performing ones. There is no test to get into schools, and no tests throughout your school life! Even more radical is that they are tossing up the idea of doing away with subjects altogether, and employing a more holistic approach to learning.
They stress fun and games for primary school kids, challenging them through social interaction and identifying their own personal skill sets. It’s incredible; with no formal national testing, Finland has churned out a collective student who is smarter than the rest of the world.
They are not just smart; they are happier, too.
And speaking of happiness, congratulations again to that child resting in the crook of his father’s arm, who got into Chula.
It is not just the other 1,900 kids I worry about. Sitting there at number 1,901 on the list of failures, or perhaps more rightly at number one, is the system itself.